University of New England - Innovation for a Healthier Planet

May Sarton papers, 1860-1994

Full finding aid (pdf) | Digitized material

Collection Scope and Content

The Sarton papers consists of diverse material types: an extensive photograph collection compiled by Sarton, correspondence, poetry drafts and typescripts, special printings, sound recordings, literary criticisms, published material, and personal memorabilia. Maine Women Writers Collection also holds a large portion of Sarton’s personal library, over 2000 volumes, accessible in the University of New England library catalog, in addition to the inserts found in those books, which are housed as an archival collection, alphabetically by book title. The photograph collection documents the formative events and people who influenced Sarton’s development: contact with British intelligentsia, extensive travel abroad, including the Far East, her literary and social networks, life in her homes in New Hampshire and Maine. Additional highlights in other series include correspondence with Ashley Montague, examples of her writing process, and recordings by and of Sarton.

Biographical/Historical Note

(Eleanor) May Sarton was born May 3, 1912, in Wondelgem, Belgium to Eleanor Mabel (Elwes) Sarton and George Sarton, an historian of science. May Sarton arrived in the U.S. in 1916, settling in Cambridge, eventually becoming a naturalized citizen in 1924. She attended the progressive Shady Hill School and later Cambridge Latin and High, graduating in 1929. Turning down a scholarship to Vassar, Sarton became an apprentice to Eva Le Gallienne’s Civic Repertory Theatre until 1933 when she formed her own Associated Actors Theatre which failed in 1935. Subsequently Sarton turned to writing full time.

Her first volume of poetry, Encounter in April, (1937) and first novel, The Single Hound, (1938) mark the beginning of Sarton’s rich oeuvre, resulting in over fifty books of poetry, fiction, journals and memoirs. Although not fully appreciated by the scholars, Sarton’s writing appealed to the “common reader” which has kept her literary legacy alive. Major themes in Sarton’s work include the importance of solitude, the vicissitudes of love, nature and the sanctification of everyday life. During the 1940s and 1950s Sarton produced some of her most important poetry including The Lion and the Rose (1948), The Land of Silence (1953) and In Time Like Air (1958) considered by some critics to be one of Sarton’s better works. Her fiction included the family saga novel The Bridge of Years (1946), Faithful Are the Wounds (1955) and Birth of a Grandfather (1957) which was nominated for a National Book Award.

In the next decade, with the publication of Mrs. Stevens Hears the Mermaids Singing, (1965) now acknowledged as her “coming out novel,” Sarton’s work began to receive critical recognition among “feminist” scholars in spite of the impact of Karl Shapiro’s negative review of her book of poetry, Cloud, Stone, Sun, Vine (1961). According to Sarton, this review kept her work from being included in major college anthologies, denying students the opportunity of studying her works. The impact of this negative review contributed to major changes in Sarton’s life: the move from Cambridge, Massachusetts to Nelson, New Hampshire and the purchase of an old farmhouse which Sarton would memorialize in the memoir Plant Dreaming Deep (1968). In essence, she turned her back on the critics and sought solitude in which to write. To counterbalance the benign picture presented in Plant Dreaming Deep, Sarton composed the Journal of a Solitude, (1973) a book representing some of Sarton’s strongest prose and one which professor and literary critic Carolyn Heilbrun would credited as a “watershed in women’s autobiography.” These two books dramatically increased Sarton’s reading public as well as significantly contributing to the art of journal writing.

After fifteen years of living in Nelson, New Hampshire, Sarton sold the house and moved to Wildknoll, her “house by the sea” in York, Maine where she would live for the next twenty years until her death. Here she experienced increasingly more serious health challenges including cancer, strokes and heart problems, but her writing continued strong resulting in the publication of the volumes of poetry Halfway to Silence (1980) and Letters From Maine (1984) and the journals Recovering (1981) and At Seventy (1984).

By the 1990s May Sarton admitted to feeling like a “stranger in the land of old age.” With serious health issues her physical abilities became increasingly diminished, yet her desire to write and stay engaged in the world around her continued. Unable to type or write she dictated three more journals over the ensuing five years. After a long absence, poetry returned as well, albeit a radically different style resulting in poems written in terse free verse. Many of these poems appeared in her last volume of poetry Coming Into Eighty (1994). Having previously received Poetry magazine’s Levinson Prize for several of these poems, Sarton’s life had come full circle. From the early sonnets published in Poetry magazine at the age of eighteen to the poems published in this magazine in 1993, it was a life which began and ended with poetry. May Sarton died July 16, 1995 and is buried in the cemetery on the hill above Nelson, New Hampshire.